Tunisian human rights organizations have been sharing images of Tunisian officials transporting a group of migrants to the Libyan border on September 27 and abandoning them in the desert.
The group, which was intercepted trying to reach Europe by boat, consisted of around 100 men, women and children, including at least three pregnant women. We spoke with a man who described how the group was stranded.
At least nine videos of the incident show a harrowing sequence of events: Tunisian officials arrested a group of migrants on September 26 and then deported them the next day and left them in the desert on the border with Libya.
The Tunisian Coast Guard intercepted the group, made up of sub-Saharan African and Tunisian migrants, who were trying to reach Italy by boat on the night of September 26. While Tunisian citizens were released, many of the people from sub-Saharan Africa were forcibly deported to Libya and left in the desert.
A video filmed by a passenger shows men, women and young children on a bus heading to the Libyan border.
This video shows a group of people, including very young children and at least one baby, being transported by bus to the border with Libya. © Screenshots of videos shared with the JowharObservers team.
Another video shows a dozen people who say they are “in the desert” on the border between Libya and Tunisia and have no help. They also say they were mistreated by the authorities.
In a third video, a man films a woman who says she is “eight months pregnant, has not eaten for several days and is weak.”
‘When we said we wanted to stay in Tunisia, the National Guard threatened, insulted and beat us’
Eric (not his real name) was one of the people who was intercepted during his attempt to reach Italy by boat on the night of September 26. Tunisian officials deported him to the Libyan border.
After we were arrested on the boats, they released the Tunisians and detained the people from sub-Saharan Africa. Then the next day, they made us get on the buses, without telling us where we were going. The group included children, pregnant women, and elderly women. After driving for five hours, they divided us into three groups and then put us in vans bound for the desert.
We tried to show them our passports but the members of the National Guard who accompanied us did not know anything. They said that our countries did not have immigration agreements with Tunisia.
We were abandoned in an area that stretches for about 20 km along the border between Libya and Tunisia. Officials showed us a way and told us to ‘keep going down’ to Libya. When several people spoke up and said they wanted to stay in Tunisia, the National Guard threatened, insulted and beat us. Some people started down the road, but others, like me, refused to go.
I was with a woman who was nine months pregnant. He was very, very thirsty and complained that his stomach hurt.
Our observer said that the pregnant woman gave birth in the desert after a hospital refused to admit her.
However, our team spoke with representatives of the International Organization for Migration, who provided a different version of events. They claimed that the woman had been rescued and gave birth at Ben Guerdane Hospital. They added that they provided him with food and other assistance.
Eric, for his part, managed to return to Tunisia.
We were finally able to return to Sfax, Tunisia by bus. I’ve been trying to make a living doing odd jobs. When I was in the desert, the National Guard threatened to kill us. But frankly, when I think about it, I prefer death to being stranded in the desert.
At least two people returned to Sfax after being abandoned in the desert, according to activists in the region. They say they haven’t heard from most of the migrants, probably because their “cell phones are dead.”
‘These deportations are unfortunately commonplace and are carried out in secret’
Eight different Tunisian NGOs issued a joint statement on October 3, confirming the events reported by our eyewitness. They said they were alarmed by the way the Tunisian authorities had treated the group, which they said included at least three pregnant women.
The statement says:
[These people] They are reportedly being held in a private house in Zouara, not far from the border. The kidnappers have demanded around $ 500 per person to release them. Libyan authorities reportedly detained another group of migrants, who were initially trapped in Ras Jedir. […] The behavior of the Tunisian authorities violates the conditions of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the rights of refugees, which Tunisia signed in 1957.
Our team contacted Romdhane Ben Amor, head of communications for the Tunis Forum for Economic and Social Rights, one of the organizations that signed the joint statement:
These deportations are unfortunately common and carried out in secret. In general, the authorities confiscate the cell phones of the people they are bringing to the border so that no one can take photos or videos.
But, in this case, the migrants managed to grab their phones and film the entire process, including the bus ride, their time in a detention center in the Medinine region, and also what happened once they were left in the desert. [Editor’s note: In August 2019, 36 migrants from the Ivory Coast managed to capture footage when they were similarly deported to the Libyan border by Tunisian officials and left without any kind of assistance].
The authorities do this to defend the European idea of fighting immigration by intercepting as many ships as possible. In August, approximately 5,582 migrants were intercepted mid-journey. About 30% were from sub-Saharan Africa.
The problem is that there is basically no space left in the immigration detention centers in Tunisia and there is no coordination as to how immigrants are handled here. Because the authorities are not handling the situation well, it is tense and there are many clashes between the local population and migrants in the Sfax region. So these days, the governors are making the decision to dump the migrants at the border.
‘We are sending them to their death’
Why are migrants sent to Libya? Due to the assumption that they probably entered Tunisia by crossing the border from Libya. However, in general, this decision is made without any verification of how they got here.
So we send people to a country [Libya], which has no resources or structures to support migrants [Editor’s note: Libya doesn’t have any law upholding the right to asylum and there are frequent reports of migrants being tortured or harmed there]. Clearly, we are sending them to their death.
Our team contacted representatives of the Tunisian National Guard, but they did not want to comment on this situation and suggested that we contact the Coast Guard or the Ministry of the Interior. The ministry did not respond to our repeated requests for comment.
Tunisian authorities have been arresting the trapped migrants trying to reach Europe and taking them to the border since early September. Even so, Italy reported that more than 4,800 migrants arrived in the country, 20% more than in the same period of 2020.